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A Dictionary of Sociology

John Scott,

Gordon Marshall


The faculty of acquiring sensory experience. Study of the processes by which we gather and interpret visual information is largely the province of social psychologists, who have identified several general principles (‘laws’) of perception, and also some effects upon it of (among other things) motivation and attention. The former includes the phenomenon of the ‘figure-ground contrast’; that is, how we perceive objects distinctly from their surroundings. This can be studied via so-called projective tests. ‘Constancy’ is also a principle of perception; that is, objects maintain perceptual stability through transformations of various types, such as alterations in size and proportion. The most systematic attempt to study the organization of perceptual phenomena is probably that of the Gestalt (‘form’, ‘figure’, or ‘holistic’) psychologists, who emphasize the role of innate patterning in visual perception, although behaviourist approaches have also been influential, notably in America. See also attitudes; attribution theory; cognitive theory.